Dryland ecosystems contain some of the least protected and most threatened native ecosystems and species. They contain 50% of New Zealand’s most threatened plant species, yet only 2% of dryland is legally protected.
Grant Norbury and Susan Walker, of Landcare Research, say low public awareness and appreciation are significant barriers to achieving dryland conservation.
'Almost all woody dryland vegetation types have an image problem,"'Grant says. 'They're often described as 'grey shrublands' or 'scrub' - not exactly inspiring! People perceive them as being of low ecological and conservation value and are less likely to protect them than, say, forest or wetlands.'
Consequently, many dryland ecosystems are depleted, fragmented and at risk from further damage.
Map (Rogers et al 2005): New Zealand's drylands occur in the rain shadow area east of the mountains that run from East Cape to Fiordland and cover approximately 19% of New Zealand's land area. The climate is semiarid, with a median annual rainfall of 981mm, and frequent drought conditions.
Grant and Susan have been looking at the ways a number of agencies with biodiversity responsibilities and interests have approached the issue, including district and regional councils, Department of Conservation, QEII National Trust, Landcare Trust, private consultants and non-government organisations.
They found a range of responses from little or no activity, to very successful and dynamic biodiversity programmes.
Grant says some agencies are really struggling with the issue in their areas and local authorities face a particular challenge in finding a balance between enforcing often controversial district plan regulations and engendering trust with landholders to adopt voluntary measures.
'It appears that the most successful approaches are those that are one-on-one with willing landholders, and low key,' Grant says.
'There are good examples of communities and landholders who are actively involved in a range of different ways.'
One example is the community-based Central Otago Ecological Trust, set up in 2005 to restore threatened dryland lizard communities and their habitats in the area.
Grant, who is also chairperson of the Trust, says there is a lot of local community interest in conservation but little opportunity to act.
'People want to help, especially when they hear that a local creature like the Otago skink is critically endangered.
'Our aim is to help people get actively involved and, in so doing, better understand the dryland environments here.
The Trust plans to establish the Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary at a site near Alexandra, as well as a lizard breeding, education and plant propagation centre, linked in with local ecotourism ventures.
The long-term objective is to reintroduce the Otago skink to the Alexandra basin, where it hasn't been seen since the 1970s, as well as improving the survival stakes for other local lizards.
Photo below: Grant Norbury showing the proposed site of the Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary to local people. Photo: Karina Holmes
Open SpaceTM Magazine No. 69, April 2007 © QEII National Trust